We live in a world that frequently exalts companies and institutions that are massive, to the point where they threaten to take over the entire world and bring it under subjection to some sort of unaccountable authority that thinks it knows best for others and does not. Unaccountable authorities need not be global authorities, but they can be national authorities, state authorities, local authorities, religious authorities, cultural authorities, and so on. Yet at the same time we tend to know, at least intellectually, that it is small institutions, companies, and nations which are the most nimble and the best able to handle changing circumstances as well as act in the best interests of all stakeholders within and around the institution. We pay lip service to the small and nimble, but all too often we pay our taxes and other money to institutions that are bloated, large, and unresponsible to our needs and interests.
Do small nations have a right to exist? On the face of it, this question has an obvious positive answer. Among the most praised nations of our contemporary world–to the extent that any nations and its leaders deserve praise–are those nations which are small and relatively homogeneous and which enjoy a high standard of living, a high degree of political stability, as well as high marks in the happiness and well-being of their people. Plenty of small nations have vibrant economies, enjoy a high degree of prestige for their culture and lack of bullying, and are part of larger supranational organizations that allow them to trade widely and freely with others. Even nations as small as tens of thousands of people can live freely and happily so long as they are protected in some way by a larger state that they have a special relationship with in the way that Monaco does with France or Andorra with Spain and France or San Marino and Italy or Liechtenstein has with Switzerland (and perhaps Austria). Nations of hundreds of thousands of people can live freely as part of regional trading blocs that help to provide economic and political leverage. And nations of millions of people can live freely while seeking to fulfill the longings and interests of their people without any great trouble so long as they are left in peace.
All of this is well and good, but how are small nations to achieve their freedom in the first place? It is one thing to note that such nations can be very successful when they are free, but how are they to become free in the first place in a world where small areas have often been the prey of larger imperially minded states both near and far? We might say, for example, that Western Sahara could live freely on its own and not be less well off than its North African neighbors, but how is it to be free of Moroccan domination? We might think very easily that Catalonia would be a successful nation on its own, but how is it to be free of Spain? How are Somaliland and Northern Cyprus to be recognized as states of their own? And on and on, such examples could easily be multiplied in the dozens, as we might ask about Maronite Christians in Lebanon who deserve some freedom from the chaos of sectarian politics, or ask how the Kurds or Baluchi or any other number of people are to be able to rise above their present fate as stateless people subject to the whims of the nations which imprison them and deny them the proper freedom and autonomy that they merit.
If a people finds themselves in the course of history to be sufficiently distinct and with sufficiently distinct interests that the states in which they are a part of do not represent their interests or provide the space for them to live freely with a high degree of cultural and individual autonomy, there are only a few ways that they can find the freedom that they seek. Ideally, they can mobilize and build institutions that serve the interests of their people and find peaceful ways of gaining some degree of freedom within larger states. Less ideally but still potentially successfully, they can find powerful friends who have an interest in supporting their demands for independence for various mixed motives, such that powerful allies can provide the military might needed to achieve independence. Least ideally, they can mobilize their own resources, even as a small people, against the seemingly overpowering might of the larger nations that oppress them without respite and without a willingness to slacken the bonds that hold a small nation under subjection to a larger one.
Still, ultimately, freedom requires there to be a coming to terms between those who want to be free and those who they want to be free of. Where there is a great deal of well-being in a small nation that wants to be free, there can frequently be a realization that even with the bad blood that generally results from separation between two nations, such nations can frequently find reasons to view each other as good neighbors, potential trade partners, as well as allies even if such people cannot peacefully and successfully exist under the same state. Such was the case between the United Kingdom and the United States starting from the 1760s. Most of the small nations that now exist survive because it has been in the interest of others that these small nations remain free. It is harder for people, even those who are in dysfunctional states, to see how it is that nations can be better off free to trade peacefully with each other as neighbors rather than squabble over questions of rule. Would a Spain that is shorn of its oppressive relationship with peoples like the Catalan, Basque, and Galician people be able to come to terms with its economy and the well-being of its remaining regions? To what extent does federation and federalism offer the chance for African nations to resolve what seem to be implacable problems of instability and internal disorder as people and nations fight each other for power and desire to dominate others or escape that domination by seeking freedom? In many cases, time must tell.